Otaku USA Magazine
Gurren Lagann, Volume One

We really take our cushy lives on the surface for granted sometimes—basking in the sun, taking strolls by the ocean—it’s become an expected delight, right? Not so for Simon, who whittles away the days drilling underground, slowly helping to expand his village by boring deeper into our Earth’s crust. To him and his people, the world above is nothing more than a forbidden mystery; a vacant uninhabitable lot that no one dares to venture toward.

Things change when Simon finds two strange items while drilling. The first is a strange drill-shaped pendant; the second, a large mechanical head that immediately attracts the affection of both our somewhat reserved hero and the boisterous picture-of-a-man Kamina. Kamina bursts with the type of manly spirit and guts that throws you right into the Gainax zone, and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is one of their finest animated efforts in some time.

The rest of the first episode brings a sudden attack from above on this disconnected, dark village, as a massive robot crashes down to their level. This wide-mouth Reach™ commercial beast is just an initial sampler platter for Yoh Yoshinari’s mechanical designs to come. The urgency of his attack not only brings the bouncy girl Yoko into the mix, but also kicks Simon and Kamina into action inside their bizarre new toy as they clumsily attempt to wail on the intruder.

Victory nets them a one-way trip to the surface, which looks every bit the final frontier they expected it to be. The desert landscape isn’t completely vacant, though, and the three soon learn that the world is populated by more of those robots (known as Gunmen), the Beastmen that pilot them, and the small-time rebels scattered about that are destined to join our heroic crew.

You can definitely see series director Hiroyuki Imaishi‘s hand in almost all of the wild visual stylings throughout the series. If the erratic, ever-changing animation didn’t tip you off, then the stills before and after the break should act as a blaring red notice that this is the man behind 2004’s Production IG jam, Dead Leaves. Though the quasi-European look only really graces those stills, Gurren Lagann shares some of its unpredictability, as well.

That’s not to say that the story is all over the place like an untamed beast. It adheres pretty closely, at least in the first volume, to what you might expect from a high-on-guts-and-passion journey through vast canyons full of relentless giant robot enemies. The way it’s all animated is very free, though, jumping without hesitation from fluid swings and kicks to sketchy, haphazard scribbles that only intensify the action.

Despite the fact that the show features a lot of variety in the individual episode-direction duties, the results are surprisingly consistent. There is, of course, the exception of episode 4, which raised a bit of a stink after it debuted. Directed by Osamu Kobayashi (Kimagure Orange Road), it is most definitely the low point of the first nine episodes, and that’s more to do with the production than the story itself, even if it hardly goes anywhere in this one. The art is just sloppy enough to be noticeable, the animation stiff enough to seem like an omen of cost-cutting to come.

It really is only a single episode drop-off, and everything returns to normal after that, ushering Simon, Kamina and their growing crew underground to a village that worships Gunmen, back surface-side to a very unsettling bath house, and eventually toward the beginnings of a full-on war with the Beastmen. Through it all, it can be difficult to believe this isn’t a highly polished OAV, and one might find his or herself crossing every finger in hopes that it will stay that way through the rest of the 27-episode series.

Gurren Lagann is an action figure show. I don’t mean to imply that it exists solely to sell people like me toys, I just want toys of almost everything in it, whether they all exist or not. Yoshinari’s designs are the things kids doodle in their dreams; big, chomping face-beasts with mouths that move along with their pilot’s. It manages to be jaw-droppingly ridiculous while remaining perfectly suited to the style of the show.

This first volume represents a solid arc of Gurren Lagann‘s tale, though disclosing why that is would spoil a great deal of the adventure. Extras are on the slim side for this one, but the show is a nice reward in and of itself, loaded with characters that will stay floating in the collective consciousness of anime fandom for quite a long time. If you’re a fan of the dub, these releases actually contain only the original Japanese with English subs. With nine episodes on two discs, it’s not a bad collection, and the only thing I desire now is the same thing on Blu-ray.

Studio/Company: Bandai Entertainment
Available: Now
Rating: 15+